Delmont Pilgrimage marks 50 years of bringing the Christmas story to the borough

Kerri Cole of Delmont will not forget her first trip to the Delmont Pilgrimage, partly because of the impact it had on her and partly because of her unknowing lack of preparation.

“I had stiletto heels, a dress and a full-length London Fog coat,” Cole said with a laugh. “I can still remember how blustery and freezing cold it was up on the hill, and how inappropriately I was dressed.”

But as Cole and her husband, Bob, made their way silently through the eight vignettes which tell the Bible story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Nazareth, she forgot about the cold and began to focus on the story the pilgrimage told.

This year, the Delmont Pilgrimage will mark a half-century of bringing the Christmas story to several thousand visitors on the first weekend of December.

“It’s the true meaning of Christmas,” said Denni Grassel, who in addition to being borough librarian took over organizing the pilgrimage in 2017.

Helen Sparkenbaugh of Delmont was part of the women’s group that organized the first pilgrimage in 1972.

“We decided to put Christmas swags with a bow on everybody’s house going up the street where the pilgrimage would go,” Sparkenbaugh said. “I had to take blue light bulbs to everyone’s house, so that the whole street would be blue lights. The electric company came out and put blue plastic over the streetlights too.”

But in addition to the holiday magic, Sparkenbaugh can recall a few of the goofs.

“The first year, they forgot to put baby Jesus in the cradle, and they had to run back to the house and get him,” she said.

One year, several shepherds accidentally let their sheep out of the Sparkenbaughs’ yard on East Pittsburgh Street just before the event started.

“My husband and a bunch of other men were running all around, now trying to actually herd them and get them back inside the fence,” she said.

Over the years, the event continued to grow, and eventually moved up the hill to the Shields Farm property, where it takes place today.

The move helped solve another problem: accommodating the 8 p.m. Greyhound bus that used to come down East Pittsburgh Street to make its Delmont stop.

Sparkenbaugh said she can remember the first year they sold 3,000 tickets.

“That was really amazing,” she said.

Over the decades, the event has been organized and executed entirely by volunteers. When it looked as though it may not continue after 2016, Grassel agreed to take charge of organizing things, and both she and Cole said the outpouring of support they got was overwhelming.

“It started here in town, and the town took ownership of it, which is awesome,” said Cole, who along with her husband are now members of the organizing committee alongside Grassel. “But also, seeing people from all over the area and other churches coming out to make sure it kept going was really amazing.”

Jack Tickle of Delmont has been taking part in the pilgrimage since the mid-1980s, and today helps coordinate actors to play Mary, Joseph, Caesar, the shepherds and the other biblical roles.

This year, members of Emmanual Reformed Church of the United Church of Christ in Murrysville donated several of their biblical costumes to the pilgrimage, and the Free Gospel Bible Institute in Murrysville regularly supplies volunteer actors.

Tickle said he still gets teary-eyed thinking about a year when he was watching the actors playing shepherds – quite literally tending their flocks by night – when a meteor shot across the sky above their heads.

“There’s so much work that goes into it, and if the spirit’s in you, it’s very fulfilling,” he said. “And because it’s the first weekend of December, you have that spirit of the season with you for three more weeks before Christmas.”

This year’s Delmont Pilgrimage will be from 4-8 p.m, Dec. 3 and 4 at Shields Farm. Tickets are $5 for ages 4-15, $10 for ages 16 and up, and free for children three and under.

To purchase tickets, visit

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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